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The Odd American Obsession With Political Sex Scandals

The entire Anthony Weiner story, from last weeks obsession with a shot of a guy’s underwear to this week’s revelation that Weiner has in fact been involved in multiple instances of online indiscretion, has led to yet another discussion of why exactly it is that Americans, especially the political media, seem to become so obsessed over the sexual peccadilloes of their representatives. On one level, it’s easy to understand because it’s just another version of the old adage that sex sells and when you need to fill up endless hours of cable news, nothing better than a story involving sex. On another level, though, it’s just darn odd. I didn’t write much about the Weiner story last wee mostly because it bored me to tears, and I honestly didn’t care about what Weiner was doing during his off hours. It’s a story now, of course, because like every other politician backed into a corner Weiner lied and obfuscated when he knew the truth was going to come out eventually.

Back to the original point, though, Conor Friedersdorf is among those arguing that “scandals” like this that don’t involve crime or abuse of office really shouldn’t be our business:

As far as I can tell — we’ve all got a depressingly big sample size — a politician’s sexual fidelity in marriage, or his sexual behavior generally, doesn’t reliably tell us anything about the integrity he demonstrates when acting in his official capacity. Nor is our moral culture elevated when we focus on these scandals. It is degraded, both because a large amount of the interest is prurient, and because by focusing on the sexual behavior of egocentric alpha males who spend a lot of time traveling far from home (that is to say, politicians) we may even be fooling ourselves into thinking that sexual impropriety is more common than it is, and thereby normalizing it.

Meanwhile, there is a significant cost to obsessing over these things. The opportunity cost, for the media, is covering lots of other matters that are actually of greater import to the public, whatever one thinks of sex scandals. And for the politician in question, scandal consumes all the time he’d otherwise be dedicating to his official duties. President Clinton’s behavior was inexcusable, but was the country better off for having its head of state focused on the fallout for months on end? If the press cannot cover sex scandals without getting carried away by their salacious aspects — and it cannot! — perhaps it would be better off abstaining altogether than lavishing many times more attention on sexual impropriety than every other kind that’s evident in public life.

John Guardiano agrees and also dismisses the “blackmail” argument being raised today by people like Andrew Breitbart:

Anthony Weiner was caught doing a wrong and stupid thing: By his own admission, he “exchanged messages and photos of an explicit nature with about six women over the last three years.” Some of this communication took place after Weiner was married, and he lied about at least one explicit tweet.

That’s sad, shameful and embarrassing. But it also is of no real public import. It’s between him, his wife, his rabbi and his God.

In fact, it remains true even now that nobody has shown Weiner’s actions had any legal or public implications whatsoever.

Indeed, unlike Sen. David Vitter (R-Louisiana), Weiner broke no law. Unlike former Sen. John Edwards (D-North Carolina), he cannot be accused of having redirected campaign funds to personal purposes. And unlike President Bill Clinton (D-Arkansas), he did not lie under oath.

In fact, it would be hard to imagine a sexual transgression more entirely personal and private than Anthony Weiner’s.

Some have argued that, by sending explicit photos to a women he barely knew, or had just met online, Weiner made himself susceptible to blackmail. I suppose that’s technically true, but it’s also rather farfetched and unrealistic.

Weiner’s politics are well known; his congressional votes are well publicized; and so it’s hard to see how, in our open and democratic society, he could be blackmailed into changing his political stripes.

Amanda Marcotte, meanwhile, objects to what she calls a loss of sexual privacy as a result of the case:

The problem with opening the door to conducting sex scandals where simply violating some sexual standard is all that’s needed is that the question arises: Who gets to set the standards? The answer is probably closer to “the religious right” than “Dan Savage”, if only because the more sexually liberal out there don’t bother with feigning outrage at the private behavior of consenting adults. You saw this problem erupting with the Weiner press conference, where reporters asked questions that implied that a standard of monogamy to be applied across the board, regardless of the preferences of the people actually in the marriage, and that failure to comply with monogamy standards constitutes a grievous personality flaw that requires professional intervention. (One shouted question specifically asked if Weiner was seeking professional help.)

Once the standard for a sex scandal moves from “public interest” to “arbitrarily deciding this person’s behavior is gross/immature/offends Jesus”, it’s open season. Today the crime is not following the standards of monogamy set by those outside your marriage (since we don’t know the details of Weiner’s relationship with his wife, these are the only standards really in play). Tomorrow, it could be that your personal behavior offends people who don’t approve of premarital sex or who think it’s gross or silly for adults to play little private games with each other. Already, half the reason this is a scandal is that Weiner said things while flirting that sound silly in a more public context. Can any of us really say that 100 percent of our flirtations in life would pass the scrutiny of a hostile audience out to maximize our humiliation?

Megan McArdle, finally,  is one of the few people who thinks this is important that makes an argument that seems reasonable:

Maybe it’s because I’m older and tireder but these days, the “not our business” school of sex scandal seems to function as a get-out-of-monogamy-free card for powerful men who want to behave badly.  If Anthony Weiner were to, say, start randomly swearing at a constituent and calling her terrible names, would anyone argue that we should not report this on the grounds that the behavior’s legal?  How about if he’d been tricking old ladies out of their pension checks with a shady stockbrockerage? Sure it’s legal, but we think it tells us something about his character, and that it’s actually useful to know those sorts of things about the people we elect.  Gallons of ink have been spilled over Newt’s attempt to discuss the terms of his divorce while his wife was recovering from cancer surgery*, and rightly so; it’s an act of epic self-absorption, and it’s hard to believe that this would never have affected his job performance.

For the most part, I fall into the “who cares” camp when it comes to “scandals” like this. The fact that a politician may have had an affair, or in Weiner’s case multiple cyber-affairs may say something about the state of their marriage vows, but it doesn’t say a thing about their performance in office and it isn’t relevant at all to the issues that the country faces. Richard Nixon was, by all accounts, remarkably faithful to his wife throughout their marriage, and yet his behavior while in office was perhaps the most venal, corrupt and dishonest of any of our Presidents. Dwight Eisenhower had an affair with a British woman during World War II, while he was married, and yet was, by all accounts, both a competent and honest politician. Judging either of these men by the way they behaved in their personal lives would have led one to reject Eisenhower and accept Nixon. Politically the choice clearly would be the opposite.

Obviously, there are times when this personal behavior becomes something that’s worthy of being publicly revealed. David Vitter, for example, didn’t just have sex outside of marriage, he frequented prostitutes in jurisdictions where that’s illegal. Mark Foley sent sexually suggestive messages to underage Congressional Pages. Mark Sanford abandoned his post, didn’t tell his staff where he was going, and invented a story designed to cover up a mistress in Argentina. Larry Craig committed a crime. Bill Clinton lied under oath. In each of these cases, the conduct crossed a line from personal behavior to something that was either illegal or, in the case of Sanford, highly irresponsible. Leaving aside the obfuscation that he engaged in up through 4pm yesterday, Weiner’s peccadillo’s don’t strike me as rising to that level based on the information we have.

As Rick Moran puts it, they really don’t tell us anything important about our country:

Weiner’s transgressions are no more indicative of the morals of the vast majority of Democratic party members than Senator Vitter’s visits to prostitutes represented the norm for Republicans. Making such blanket observations is an exercise for partisans. The American people tend to take their politicians one at a time, judging them for their performance and their individual impressions as to how well a politician lives up to the expectations they have set for them. Party loyalty is much less important today than in the past, which makes these adventures in muckraking far less damaging than 100 years ago.

This makes the feeding frenzy in the media and on blogs an exercise in dynamic overkill. A partisan like Andrew Brietbart — a counterpart to Freneau, Callendar, and other newspaper bomb throwers of the past — is a necessary adjunct for any political party (the Democrats have Media Matters’ David Brock who functions in a similar capacity). He has proven to be a canny manipulator of the mainstream press — baiting them, playing them, and forcing them to cover stories they would ordinarily eschew.

But this scandal-churning has a downside; so much importance is attached to, what would ordinarily be considered trivialities, that the salacious gossip crowds out actual news stories.

During the week that Twitter, the blogosphere (conservative and liberal), and the American news media have been obsessing over Anthony Weiner’s sex life there has been a political crisis in Yemen, continued fighting in Libya, American soldiers killed in Iran and Afghanistan, a volcanic eruption in South America, an incredibly bad jobs report, and a Serbian war criminal was finally brought to justice. Any one of these stories was arguably more important than what Anthony Weiner was doing online with adult women. Of course, none of them were sexy and it’s pretty clear that a cable news segment on Weiner is likely to get more viewers than a segment on Yemen.

There’s one other part of this story that bothers me, and it’s one that comes up every time a political figure stumbles. Conservatives jumped on the Anthony Weiner story, I submit, not because they really care about his personal morality or the state of his marriage. They jumped on it because he is a confrontational, outspoken Democrat known for taking on the right. They attacked him because he was the enemy and it didn’t matter whether what he did was relevant to his job or not. Similarly, bloggers on the left defended Weiner, absurdly in some cases, because he’s on their side. If the party labels had been reversed, the roles would have been reversed. It’s the politics of personal destruction mixed with the 24 hour news cycle, which is why I think Moran’s comparison of the Breitbart to the likes of James Callendar, the early American pamphleteer best known for smearing everyone from John Adams to Alexander Hamilton to Thomas Jefferson with vile insults. The only difference between the two of them (and,yes, there are Breitbart’s on the left) is that Callendar didn’t have access to modern technology. What they have in common is that they contribute nothing to the political debate in this country.

Will Americans end their odd obsession of the intersection of politics and sex? Of course not, and since politicians will continue to behave badly we can be sure to have stories like this in the future. What purpose is served by obsessing over them, though, is another question.

 

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Chad S says:

    I generally agree unless there’s an ethics/legal charge, but these are the people we trust to make(or help make) the important decisions of the day. The voters of their jurisdiction have a right to know what kind of person they’re sending to represent them.

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  2. Wiley Stoner says:

    Let us see here #failconis, it is ok to critique what someone says to her kid about an incident which happened more than 200 years ago and who does not hold public office and had not declared they intend to try to, yet when an office holder who actually has responsiblity to the people he represents LIES HIS BUTT OFF that is OK? It is somehow obsessive to question a Congress man who thinks it is OK to send pics of his privated to people he has never met. I am sure glad people who think like you are in the minority, Doug. Whats the matter? Palin has not left any foot snares for you today?

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  3. Hey Norm says:

    The worst thing about this entire episode is that Breitbart is finally right about something. Hell is most certainly frozen.

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  4. Rob in CT says:

    I generally agree that the way our society/media treats sex scandals (or just sex, for that matter) is wacky, but something like this does speak to character. Particularly the attempt to cover it up, and get others to lie for him. There are guys who’ve done worse and kept their jobs, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t scumbags and that Weiner isn’t a scumbag, ya know?

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  5. Moderate Mom says:

    If, when the story first broke, Weiner had said yes, he sent it, and then asked for privacy in order to work things out with his wife, a lot of the furor would have died down quickly. But it was Weiner himself, through his pathetic attempts at damage control, that became the match to the media bonfire.

    Do I care that he virtually cheats on his wife? No, not really. I’m not his mother or his friend. Do I care that he sits in his office, paid for by the taxpayer, and tells baldfaced lies over and over, with each and every interview he did last Wednesday? Yes, as a matter of fact, I do. He has now proven, without a doubt, to both his wife and the public, that he is untrustworthy. He is a liar. As such, he should resign, the sooner the better. I don’t want my taxpayer dollars paying the salary of such scum.

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  6. G.A.Phillips says:

    The worst thing about this entire episode is that Breitbart is finally right about something. Hell is most certainly frozen.

    lol…

    This dude should step down and go make up with his wife.

    He lied his donkey off, even to the liberal puppet media that was trying to defend him.

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  7. Gulliver says:

    People are still “fascinated” because these things reveal the character of the individual involved; both in their actions and their attempts to cover their actions by lying (or in Weiner’s case, to pawn off responsibility for the event on anyone but himself).

    Lying is still considered to be wrong by most people. You know, one of those things you teach your children not to do when they are young.

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  8. Janis Gore says:

    Some wag commenter today said “God gave man a brain and a penis and enough blood to run one at a time.”

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  9. Gustopher says:

    Speaking of blackmail… Breitbart claims to be holding an explicit photo of Weiner as “insurance”

    http://content.usatoday.com/communities/onpolitics/post/2011/06/andrew-breitbart-anthony-weiner-x-rated-photo-/1

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  10. john personna says:

    Call me old fashioned, but I prefer a sex scandal to a sexting scandal.

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  11. Janis Gore says:

    Nice old-fashioned sex scandals don’t typically include pictures.

    If you want to walk the Appalachian trail make sure you pick up the condoms and massage oil packaging. That’s all I ask.

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  12. Mr. Prosser says:

    You are correct that the obsession is with the media. Most folks were tired of this real quickly and yes, there are more important subjects to cover. On the other hand, flashing your crotch in cyberspace or on a streetcorner just isn’t something I expect from a lawmaker. Not only that but these days it’s so easy to get caught (exposed?).

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  13. Joe R. says:

    The opportunity cost, for the media, is covering lots of other matters that are actually of greater import to the public, whatever one thinks of sex scandals.

    I find this unpersuasive. There are multiple 24-hour news outlets, all of them scrambling to find something to put on the airwaves. Most stories get repeated multiple times during a 24-hour period. There is, in theory, an opportunity cost, but the cost is probably close enough to zero in this day and age as to be indistinguishable from it. This isn’t 1959 anymore.

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  14. Joe R. says:

    Weiner’s politics are well known; his congressional votes are well publicized; and so it’s hard to see how, in our open and democratic society, he could be blackmailed into changing his political stripes.

    And that’s just naive. I suppose he also believes corporate lobbyists have no influence; after all, everyone’s politics are well known and their votes are publicized.

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  15. Hey Norm says:

    Cmon moderate mom…
    You remove every liar in Washington and you remove Washington.
    If everyone who sexts or has phone sex resigns tomorrow the world will grind to a halt.
    The faux indignation – and I’m not judging yours – is not productive.
    Let’s get back to whether we are going to require 85 year old women negotiate with insurance co. Representatives in Bangladesh while holding vouchers specifically designed not to keep pace with health care cost increases.

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  16. The man has no honor. It does matter.

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  17. Janis Gore says:

    It’s a matter for his constituents to decide.

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  18. Drew says:

    I guess Nancy Pelosi put the cork back in the swamp too early.

    Feeble attempts to sanitize this as a sex scandal miss the point. If its so trivial then the guy should just cop to it rather than becoming a serial liar and attempting to involve or destroy the reputations of others for personal political gain.

    Further, if any of you think posting pictures of your erect unit or salacious commentary on the internet is evidence of a sound, trustworthy mind, please let me know how.

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  19. Janis Gore says:

    I’m not careful of Breitbart’s reputation, if that’s what you’re thinking. Hey, ho, he’s busted the ranks of National Enquirer?

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  20. Eric Florack says:

    Where was this objection, the claim that there was an obsession with sex scandals… when Tom Foley… oh, never mind. THe obvious, apparently is beyond you.

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  21. Eric Florack says:

    For the sake of Clarity… does anyone on earth figure Amanda Malcotte wouldn’t be screaming bloody murder if this scandal involved a Republican, or a tea partier? She’d not get a senstance out for the next several weeks that didn’t involve the phrase “Sexual harassment”. But because thebguy is a Democrat, she’s all concerned about HIS sexual privacy. Is there a more glaring double standard?

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  22. PJ says:

    Where was this objection, the claim that there was an obsession with sex scandals… when Tom Foley… oh, never mind. THe obvious, apparently is beyond you.

    You think what [i]Mark[/i] Foley did was only some kind of tomfoolery?
    A rather obvious difference, as of now, is that Foley contacted [b]underage[/b] pages.
    But maybe you’re ok with that?

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  23. Eric Florack says:

    The only one? Hardly. But the difference in response is rather telling.

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  24. PJ says:

    It was your bright idea to compare them.
    That you don’t seem to see the difference is rather telling too.

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  25. James says:

    Lying is still considered to be wrong by most people. You know, one of those things you teach your children not to do when they are young.

    Give me a frickin break. Politifact and Factcheck do booming business with politicians that lie every single day. Politicians lie to their constituents and reporters. Politicians from both parties lie to journos right to their face, demonstrably lie, on matters of great import. Every. Single. Day. Right to their face. On television. On the floor of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

    In fact, politicians are caught lying so often that reporters don’t even pay it any mind. “Lie of the Year”? Not even a mention out of Washington news organizations. Yawn. Their fellow politicians don’t care. In fact, their fellow politicians repeat the lie. Defend the lie. Loyal constituents defend the lie. Repeat the lie. Accept the lie.

    Reporters don’t care. They just write down the lie, put quotes around it, and move on with their story. Reporters don’t even bother to check the lie, to rebut the lie. they don’t even bother to inform their readers the statement was a lie. Journalists and their editors don’t even bother to correct a statement that was a demonstrable lie, even with irrefutable evidence the statement was a lie. In fact, they are likely instead to attack the person who made note of the lie.

    And I’m talking about lies that matter. Lies about health care policy. Lies about the budget. Lies about fiscal policy. Lies about foreign policy. Lies about the other party.

    So I don’t get this moral high horse AT ALL. This handwringing in the Beltway is just stupid, and hypocritical to the extreme.

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  26. An Interested Party says:

    And I’m talking about lies that matter. Lies about health care policy. Lies about the budget. Lies about fiscal policy. Lies about foreign policy. Lies about the other party.

    Wow, you mean those lies should actually matter more than ones about who someone sexted? Who knew…

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  27. bains says:

    Let us ignore the fact that a sitting congressman has displayed both compunction and flair when lying to his constituents. Let us instead focus on (much shorter Doug) americas obsession with sexual trysts. (Unless, of course the participant happens to be of the GOP, or conservative, or non-left religious; then it is the hypocrisy that absolutely warrants wall to wall media coverage. Hypocrisy indeed!)

    Sorry Doug, your attempts to diminish this story notwithstanding, what I find most revealing is the media’s glaring duplicity in reaction to this story. And also those who abet this duplicity. To pretend that it was just a sex scandal purposefully ignores the real issue. And that is the veracity of an elected official, and the veracity of all those defending him, and the veracity of all those adamantly saying “move along, nothing to see here.”

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  28. Eric Florack says:

    It was your bright idea to compare them.
    That you don’t seem to see the difference is rather telling too.

    I’m not really sure you want to go there. Weiner was specifically asked during the presser if there were any under-age women involved… and he admitted he didn’t know but “assumed” they were all of age.

    And here again, were Weiner a Republican, you know there would already be an investigation into that aspect of it. As it is, we;ve still got the usual crowd going to bat for him.

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  29. Eric Florack says:

    Wow, you mean those lies should actually matter more than ones about who someone sexted? Who knew…

    And so that weiner lied, misused government equipment, used his office to smear Brietart and so on, doesn’t give you pause about what else he might be lying about?

    As Chris Lee and Scooter Libby what happens to people who lie, all right?

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  30. Mr. Weiner (what an appropriate name) is only following his Commander In Chief’s example: a lie a day keeps the Republicans at bay. But what is this talk of Anthony Weiner being telegenic and smooth, etc. As my daughter stated: ‘his eagle beak,, liver lips, and receding hairline, he’s more like the male equivalent of the ‘butter face’. Had he admitted what he had done in the first place, even without an apology, the whole thing would have blown over the same day. What a putz…no, what a schlemiel…what a schmazel.

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